A Fresh Take on an Old Friend
No matter how wonderful, perfect, or beautiful a person, place (i.e. Charleston), job, relationship, or just about anything starts out, it’s easy to take any of these for granted and fail to really see or recognize why you fell in love with them in the first place. Stress, rushing, bad attitude and plain old not stopping to smell the roses can take its toll on perspective. As wonderful as the last two years have been in my life, they have been very busy. So busy, I was starting to feel grumpy and rushed about too many things, including the city I fell in love with at first sight and have called home for nearly twenty years. Recognizing this, I made a personal vow to take some time to recharge my spirit, mind, soul, take better care of my health, and more time with family, friends and my pets.
Nearly two months into my self-prescribed recharge initiative, I’ve lost seven pounds, am sleeping better than ever, feeling extra creative and productive, and enjoying life and Charleston with renewed vigor. The other day, while walking down East Bay Street near Broad, the morning sun lovingly cast upon the mostly 19th-century roof lines, it seemed as if I had never seen them, really seen them, in their purest and most tangible form as I did at that moment. Later that same week, a friend I haven’t seen in thirty years came to town for a visit. Turns out, Deb and I are in the same place; re-assessing our lives and priorities. She’s looking for potential new places to live (at least part time), so thought she’d give Charleston a whirl. Naturally, I found myself wanting to show Charleston off, and in a most unexpected and delicious turn of events, ended up with a renewed appreciation for my hometown.
Friday morning began with a brisk walk on the beach with my dog Rocky and a spin by Bowen’s Island restaurant to show Deb the tumbledown seafood shack that embodies Charleston and especially Folly Beach with mollusk and hush puppy aplomb. She spied something I never had before, Charleston Outdoor Adventures and kayak tours. I’d never been on a kayak and had never even known about this location for taking them So, we signed up! I felt as excited as a kid on Christmas Eve. Next stop, was a walking tour downtown, and lunch at one of my personal favorites, Little Jack’s Tavern. I felt compelled to introduce Deb to the justifiably famous Little Jack’s Tavern Burger and the cool vibes of this neat little cosmopolitan spot with cheerful Charleston charm. All juicy and packed with flavor and glazed with its signature, secret sauce, it somehow seemed to taste better than ever as we laughed our way through thirty years of memories, some shared and some lived individually and shared over the meal and throughout the weekend.
A warm summer Friday night for two baseball fans seemed like a fitting way to wrap the afternoon at Joe Riley Baseball Park for some all American fun and (as Deb was hoping) a possible Bill Murray sighting. Well, the latter didn’t happen, but a magnificent pink and purple and blue cotton candy sunset did over the marshes at the rear of the park and we watched the likes of players with names like Gage Cunning (fodder for my novel’s lead character’s name) smash the ball around the park and mascots bumping into each other and acting silly. Beer and brisket sandwiches provided sustenance for our bellies, while the charming little park, feel-good sports fans, a rocking fireworks display, and witty banter fed our souls.
Saturday arrived in a flash and I was up before dawn preparing the our kayak tour with Charleston Outdoor Adventures. A quick tutorial with our handsome guide Josh and we were in the saltwater estuary waters behind Folly Beach. A rocky glide across open water went fairly well until our group of five kayak pros and kayak virgin me tried to negotiate our way through a narrow, serpentine slip of water. I felt like I was leaving an aorta and entering a capillary as my poor boat lined itself up horizontally in the flow, nose and tail firmly plugged into the marsh grasses. I was motionless, breathless, and slightly scared. None the less, I was not too proud to flail my oar in the air and meekly cry “help” to the group three turns farther down the path. Josh arrived like the kayak savior he was, pulling out a large hook and line to attach to the tip of my kayak. “Oh my God, you’re not my own personal kayak tugboat are you, Josh?” Yes, was the response, but don’t worry it wasn’t the first time.
Seriously humbled and blushed with shame and exertion, eventually I was able to figure out how to negotiate the rudder pedals and re-joined the group in the open waters, just in time to catch a grounded old shrimping boat and a pod of dolphins. Josh explained that female dolphins (what we were witnessing) typically live sixty years, while males live only fifty. The pristine world where we were watching them play was custom made for their lifestyle and playground, largely created and protected by the barrier islands that surround Charleston. It was a morning I’ll not soon forget and my arm and shoulder muscles, three days later, still possess significant recall.
Later that day, we headed back into town for a ride with Ross of Palmetto Carriage through the French Quarter and lower peninsula. Probably my 20th carriage tour, I learned some things I didn’t know, such as how a boat had smashed into two houses on East Bay during the hurricane of 1911, completely destroying them, and reminded myself again how beautiful the old mansions look in the ebbing light of day, cool afternoon breezes refreshing our spirits anew. There was more on our robust to-do list that got done, such as a “sip and stroll” to The Pavilion Bar, Anson, and The Blind Tiger, and breakfast at The Hominy Grill Sunday morning, enjoying what surely must be the best shrimp and grits and she crab soup in town, if not the entire world.
Three nights, two and a half days, several great meals, a massive lightning storm, Thursday night book club with delicious food and great gals, even more great adventures, and I don’t know how many laughs later, I’d re-found two friends. A Charleston I had partly forgotten and a friendship of thirty years refreshed. And, Deb made a new friend in my little puppy, Rocky Rocken Roll, who practically would not let her go home.
Lesson learned – remember to savor life and take no moments, no place, or no one for granted. And, when you come to or visit Charleston, savor all she has to offer.
Hardly anything I can think of trumps the utterly simple deliciousness of a well-prepared French onion soup. Similarly, I can think of nothing utterly worse than a thin, flavorless ill-prepared version. Like all dishes with very few ingredients, the key is making each one count. For an exquisite French onion soup it boils down to three things: a top-quality, rich dark beef stock, long, slowly simmered caramelized onions, and Gruyere or Comte cheese for topping. Therefore, if at all possible make your own stock, don’t rush the onions, and go for the best quality imported cheese you can afford. Processed Swiss will work in a pinch but the flavor and color will be diluted. Aside from its heady layers of sweet onions marrying with nutty, bubbling cheese and a rich broth, this is an ideal soup for entertaining (such as New Year’s Eve or Day!). All of the components can be made ahead and put together at the last minute before serving, and I’ve never met a soul (French or otherwise) that doesn’t love the stuff.
(Adapted from pre-published pages for The French Cook: Soups and Stews, Gibbs Smith, Fall 2014)
Soupe a L’Oignon Francaise
French Onion Soup
(Makes 6 servings)
Special equipment: Six 1 1/3 cup oven-proof bowls or ramekins
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 large sweet onions (preferably Vidalia), or substitute regular white onions, peeled halved and thinly sliced (about 6 cups)
3 cloves garlic, smashed and finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, chopped
3/4 cup good quality white wine (suggest Chardonnay)
1/2 cup dry vermouth
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
4 cups best-quality, unsalted beef stock (preferably homemade)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the croutons and cheese garnish:
12 slices 1 or 2 day old French baguette bread, cut into 1/2”-thick slices
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cups grated Gruyere or Comte cheese
In a 5 1/2 quart Dutch oven or similarly sized soup pot, melt the olive oil and butter together over medium high heat. When melted, add the onions, garlic and a generous dash of salt and pepper. Stir to coat. Continue cooking another 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until all of the onion “water” is cooked off and the onions have become quite soft. Add the thyme and continue cooking. The onions will start turning golden and caramelizing in 10 minutes. This is what you want. Taste and adjust salt and pepper as needed. Increase heat to high, add the wine, stirring to pick up any brown/caramelized bits and reduce by half. Add the vermouth and also reduce by half. Sprinkle the flour evenly over the soup, and stir to mix into the onions, cooking for one minute. Add the beef stock, stir. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer, cooking another 15 minutes, uncovered. Meanwhile, turn the broiler on high. Arrange the croutons in a single layer on a baking sheet. Drizzle each side lightly with olive oil and rub it into the bread. Place the sheet on the top shelf and broil until just golden on each side, turning once. You can stop here and store the soup separately from the garnishes overnight in a refrigerator or continue to finish the soups. To serve, taste the soup again, and adjust seasoning if necessary. Ladle boiling hot soup into each bowl/ramekin. Top each with 2 or 3 croutons and about 1/2 cup grated cheese. Arrange on a baking sheet and broil until the cheese is golden and bubbly, about 4 to 6 minutes. Serve immediately with fresh thyme sprigs for garnish if desired.
Bon appetit et Joyeux 2014!
I’ve had the happy occasion to spend a fair amount of time in Williamsburg, VA in recent months for book signings and to visit a very special someone. Experiencing this celebrated Colonial American town morph from the bright sun and hot days of late August into the muted hues and chilly nights of early October has increased my fervor for fife and drum corps and tricorn hats while simultaneously stunting my fear of ubiquitous, bland tourist food.
While all are plentiful, Williamsburg and her smart, talented restauranteurs have largely taken the high road away from stodgy corn pudding, stale ale, and fast food restaurants. This is especially true in Merchants Square, a stones throw from the hallowed, beautiful William and Mary campus and in the heart of the Colonial hustle and bustle. There, on and around Duke of Gloucester Street, shine three oustanding examples of some of Williamsburg’s culinarian best.
Purely a family affair, this classically French-inspired restaurant with a penchant for local, seasonal produce, is an extension of neighboring The Cheese Shop and The Trellis Restaurant, just across the street. All trace their origins back to the Power family, which are in one way or another affiliated with each eatery. Fat Canary’s Executive Chef Thomas Power, Jr. deftly borrows from his CIA culinary training and travels around the world to create a brief, but power-packed menu. Rappahannock oysters dance with sweet onion, tomato and sweet peppers in one starter, while nutty, buttery seared foe gras is served with hazelnut bread toast points and tart/sweet blackberry coulis in another; both emblems of Power’s knack for balancing French technique with local ingredients. Wine selections and pairings are handled expertly by a professional yet relaxed staff, which blends beautifully with the wooden, sage-colored walls, and comfortable banquettes in the intimate dining room. Not to be missed here – any and all things slow cooked and braised, in particular the Fred Flinstone-sized lamb shank, capable of seducing even the most practiced gourmande with its layered nuance of flavor which extends right down to the towering bone. Reservations highly recommended. Dinner only.
Meanwhile, during the day, don’t miss a visit to the adjoining cheese shop. All 9,000 square feet brimming with deliciousness – international cheeses, Virginia ham, fresh breads, sandwiches, and downstairs, a wine lover’s cellar dream. Pack it all up for a picnic across the way on the ample greens of William and Mary. Or, cross the street to The Trellis and dig into some of their hearty soup and sandwich combos, served in a series of rooms decorated with sophisticated swirl of mosaic tiles and amber-hued seating. The Trellis Grilled cheese, an irresistable heap of thinly sliced Virginia ham, Tillamook cheddar, bacon, a slather of sweet caramelized onions and a hit of pickled okra on thick slices of buttery, toasted sour dough, is a meal fit for Colonial appetites, indeed.
The one that almost got away, but thanks to the advice of a Facebook friend, did not. I was able to sneak in one last lunch on my last visit before heading home, and was I glad I did. Situated just a block or two behind these other restaurants on Prince George Street, Blue Talon resonates with Gallic charm, this time with hungry-man bistro style, but manages to fit in just enough room for Virginia ingredients.
For example, a mac ‘n cheese so sinful I’m sure I’ll have to recite a minimum of three Hail Mary’s at the gates of heaven, that is, if I even get in. Owner/Chef David Everett reduces whole cream way, way down and threads it with cheddar and Parmesan cheese, and broils it just enough so that your spoon makes a “crunching” sound as it breaks through into the gorgeous, cheesy sauce wrapped around tender penne and drizzled with fresh thyme. Not enough? Scatter some shards of salty Virginia ham served along side on top.
Like the mac ‘n cheese and really all the food we so enjoyed, the restaurant is spackled with whimsy, but bridled with taste. For example, borderline tacky coq curios are everywhere, but they slip deliciously into the French blue painted walls, comfortable rattan seating, and seas of sunlight spilling in through French doors. Most dishes come served in gratins or sauce pans “stuck” to the plate with colorful plastic hot plates.
After sampling such rib-sticking, yet sophisticated fare, it should come as no surprise that Blue Talon’s motto is “Serious Comfort Food.” Check out the open-faced pot roast sandwich (left). Comfort food, yes, and seriously so. Not just your Momma’s pot roast, this one is loved and coaxed and seasoned into consummate flavor and tenderness, swaddled with sweet carrots and onions in a sumptuous broth. There is no way anyone’s getting away without every bowl scraped clean with the likes of Blue Talon’s fare.
Add in easy access, reasonable prices, and exceptional service and there are three more reasons to make a visit every time beautiful Williamsburg, VA makes your traveling calling card.
In some ways, 2012 was, for me, the year that wasn’t. At least six months of it weren’t fun, were definitely very painful, and the last three months of the year, even walking wasn’t possible. So, nearly all of the things I enjoy in work and life (dining, cooking, writing, tennis, long walks) were off the table for much of the year. Fortunately, reading was a readily indulged passion and I finally found the pesky pain culprit (avascular necrosis in my left hip ball). With oustanding medical help, a great surgeon and the passage of healing time, it’s now fixed and the future looks bright in 2013.
Thank goodness and there is so much on the plate. Starting with a new book (that I was able to complete last winter and summer) release on March 1, 2013. The French Cook: Sauces is a fun, saucy and informative cookbook on classic French sauces and I’m really excited about the recipes, design, photography – everything!
And, here’s a picture of one of my favorite recipes in the book, luscious, sweet Lowcountry shrimp married with a beautiful, buttery red curry sauce. Like all of the recipes in the book, I had a ball balancing classic French technique with fresh product and flavor pairing inspiration. There are over 50 recipes in the book. I can’t wait to see it and I hope you feel the same way.
So, as I start looking forward to 2013, I have the promise of promoting this book in the spring, and several new projects to begin. First, the second book in the same (new) series, The French Cook: Eclairs and Cream Puffs (Sweet and Savory). I’m underway in my kitchen and having a ball, literally, within the extremely diverse and beautiful world of cream puffs and eclairs.
In between takes, and likely on weekends, I’m going to begin work on my first-ever novel, a debut in a culinary romance novel series. I have a top-secret title I love (I always begin with a title) and am getting an airtight case on the plot which will involve at least one French chef and will take place in Paris and somewhere else in the U.S. Voila! It promises to be slightly naughty, but nice, and full of all things delicious and fun.
Finally, it’s time to put together a revision to The Charleston Chef’s Table Cookbook. First published in 2009 (Globe Pequot Press), so many wonderful, exciting and delicious additions to the dining scene have since happened and many new trends developed, especially in 2012. Certainly, Sean Brock and Husk lead the extreme localvore, Southern devotee parade with the opening of this award-winning restaurant, a trend we saw deliciously extend its march onward (much of it on or near Upper King) in restaurants such as The Lot, Butcher & Bee, Two Borough’s Larder ,The Grocery, and The Macintosh to name just a few.
I think 2013 will bring Charleston continued culinary excellence. My personal wish list includes a greater expansion into ethnic restaurants or dining options (as we have seen in food trucks), such as the Vietnamese twists we’re seeing with CO and Phuong. Maybe add Moroccan to the list (ideally at the exotic former Saracen location) and/or some crazy good out of this world Chinese? As an admitted francophile, I’d be delighted to see a very romantic, very French bistro serving exquisitely prepared yet price accessible French bistro fare somewhere in another area that is growing nearly as fast as Upper King, North Charleston, peut-etre?
Meanwhile, I have plenty of targets on my list to visit, research and write about on this blog for the new Chef’s Table revisions as we begin unpeeling the delicious Charleston restaurant layers in 2013. These include closer looks at The Ordinary, Stars, Carter’s Kitchen, Rutledge CAB Company (when it’s open), and many, many more.
Yes, indeed, I think that 2013 will bring many wonderful culinary surprises to beautiful Charleston and I look forward to uncovering them and describing them to you on this blog. So thankful to be “kicking” again and for your loyalty. Bon appetit and a Happy, Healthy New Year!